The Tom Epperson Story
(as told to Tom Epperson)
(as told to Tom Epperson)
I was born in 1951 in the little southwest Arkansas town of Nashville. My family moved to the somewhat larger town of Malvern a year later, and that’s where I grew up. My father was a lawyer and judge. My mother, like virtually all mothers in those days, was a housewife. I had three sisters.
I was a bashful little boy who hated school and didn’t make very good grades. I loved to read comic books (we called them funny books) and to fish on Lake Catherine and to go to the Ritz Theater and see neat movies like Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Creeping Unknown.
Growing up in Arkansas in the fifties was not unlike growing up in apartheid-era South Africa. The racism against black people was out in the open. It was proud and it was smug and it was ugly and it was defiant. It dared you to say something different. I knew from an early age that it was wrong, but nobody around me (and I mean not one person) seemed to agree with me, and I learned then a very important lesson: Never take anybody’s word for anything. A single person can be right, and a whole society can be wrong. Indeed, society is probably usually wrong.
It was my intention to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a lawyer, but when I got to college, I changed my mind. I had a wonderful freshman English teacher named George Horneker, who thought I had talent as a writer. Late in my freshman year, I decided to change my major from political science to English. I felt it was my destiny to be a writer, and I’ve never looked back or had one second of self-doubt since then.
I got a B.A. from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and an M.A. from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and then I applied to and was accepted by the Ph.D program at the University of Texas at Austin. My plan was to become a college professor. I’d taught freshman English as a grad student at Fayetteville, and enjoyed teaching, and I loved the calm campuses and pretty co-eds and hushed libraries of academia. It seemed like a good way to make a living until my writing started to pay off. But then I changed my mind again.
I’d lived my life almost exclusively in the world of books, and I realized that, both as a writer and a person, I needed to experience more of what some have called the “real” world. I wrote Texas and told them I wasn’t coming.
Exploring the world can be a daunting task, especially when you’re the shy, quiet type like I was. Fortunately I found a partner.
When I was 12, the Epperson family got some new neighbors. The Thorntons. Billy Bob was eight. He wore glasses and had buck teeth and looked remarkably like the Ernie Douglas character in My Three Sons (and he actually was one of three sons). We had some things in common--we both liked sports and monster movies and funny books--but a four-years age difference is a vast chasm when you’re a kid, and I certainly didn’t regard him as an equal. When my friends and I needed a body to round out the sides when we were playing basketball or touch football in the back yard, Billy Bob was brought in.
We had a nickname for Billy Bob. “Silly Slob.” We played mean tricks on him. Once when Chuck Shryock and I attempted to retrieve an errantly tossed football from some bushes, we encountered a yellowjacket nest and were driven away. We were standing around trying to figure out how to get the ball out of there, when who should come walking down the sidewalk but little Billy Bob. We told him we couldn’t get our football out of the bushes because we were “too big” to get in there. Billy, always eager to be included by the big kids, was happy to help us out. He crawled back into the bushes, and then an instant later tore out of there with the football under his arm, screaming as yellowjackets swarmed around him and stung him repeatedly. Chuck and I laughed our heads off.
I didn’t see Billy for years after I went away to college. When I finished my master’s, I came back to Malvern, where I worked on a novel and tried to figure out what to do next, and Billy and I reestablished contact. He no longer looked like Ernie Douglas. He had a beard, tattoos, and hair down to his shoulders. He sang and played drums in a rock band, while working a series of crummy factory and construction jobs. Like me, Billy had large ambitions. I wanted to be the next Vladimir Nabokov. He wanted to be the next Elvis Presley.
I was a big fan of The Waltons, and identified with John-Boy, the aspiring young southern writer. When John-Boy left Walton’s Mountain and moved to New York City to seek his fame and fortune, I decided it was a sign that I should do the same. I talked Billy into coming with me. The fact that we had very little money and not a single contact in New York didn’t seem to faze us. We warned our weeping mothers and girlfriends that it would probably be years before we returned, then bought a road map and left Malvern in my packed-to-the-gills black Buick.
It was June, 1977. The Summer of Sam. We drove through the very intimidating Holland Tunnel, and parked the car on the Avenue of the Americas. We began to walk. New York terrified us. The buildings seemed miles high. Wave on wave of yellow taxis rushed hither and thither down the streets. The throngs of pedestrians seemed alien, rude, and in a great hurry. The only friendly person we encountered was a chubby black woman who said to me: “Hey baby, wanna date?” Flattered, I replied: “No ma’am, but thanks for asking.”
We walked, and walked, and day turned into night, and a violent thunderstorm struck the city, and we were soaked to the skin, and we saw apocalyptic-looking clouds whipping past the top of the Empire State Building. We decided to return to the car, but weren’t sure where we had left it. We became lost. The rain continued. We were afraid the Son of Sam was going to get us. Finally, with the help of a kindly cab driver, we found our car. We’d arrived in New York at noon. We left at 10 o’clock that night. Shaken and humiliated, we took our time driving back to Arkansas. We hung out in a cheap motel in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for a few days. Twelve days after we’d left, we were back in Malvern. Billy went to the Dairy Queen. He ran into his girlfriend. She was surprised. She said: “But I thought you were goin’ to New York City.”
Youth is nothing, though, if not resilient, and after a few weeks of recuperation, we hit the road again. We boarded a Greyhound Bus to Lakeside, a suburb of San Diego, to visit Billy’s aunt and uncle, Sally and Bill. We fell in love with California as soon as we stepped off the bus. The mountains, the palm trees, the ocean, all seemed magic to us. Billy’s uncle Bill worked as a border guard at Tecate, the Mexican town east of Tijuana where the beer comes from. One Sunday afternoon, Billy and I went to Tecate with Billy and Sally and their teenaged children, and we found ourselves in the midst of a fiesta. We saw two beautiful Mexican girls looking at us and smiling. We introduced ourselves. They turned out to be sisters. Rosa, who was 17, knew a little English. Guillermina, 19, knew none at all. We instantly fell in love, Billy with Rosa and me with Guillermina, and decided to move to Lakeside. We took the bus across the country back to Malvern, packed up the Buick again, then set out for a new life in California.
The Eagles were our favorite group, and “Hotel California” was constantly playing on the radio, which we took as a sign that this was all meant to be. We got an apartment on Wintergarden Boulevard. Strangely, both our heroes, Presley and Nabokov, died within the first month of our living there. We took that as a sign too, though we weren’t sure of what.
We drove over a winding mountain road to Tecate every chance we got. We met Rosa and Guillermina’s very large family. There were nine daughters, all beautiful, but Rosa and Gullermina were the most beautiful. The family was very poor. They got their water in buckets from a well. The toilet was an outhouse. But they couldn’t have been any more welcoming and warm to us, and I spent in that house some of the best hours of my life. Billy and I asked Rosa and Guillermina to marry us, and they said yes.
But back in Lakeside things were not so fun. What little money we’d brought from Arkansas was running out fast. We didn’t have any luck finding jobs. And as often happened with Billy and me when we were under pressure, we began to fight with each other. After a couple of months Billy had had enough, and took a bus back to Arkansas. And that was the end of the line for him and Rosa.
I managed to stick it out a little longer. I got a job as a night clerk in a convenience store for two bucks an hour. Billy and I had somehow escaped the clutches of the Son of Sam in New York, but somebody was going around robbing and shooting convenience store clerks in the Lakeside area, so every night in Utotem was a long and scary journey to dawn. The mountains and Mexico and Guillermina were great, but my situation became untenable when I got laid off by Utotem around Christmas. I couldn’t even cut it as a convenience store clerk. So I hatched a new plan. I would return to Arkansas, go back to college for a semester and get certified to teach in high school, get a job and make some money, then go back to Mexico and marry Guillermina then bring her back to Arkansas. All of which I almost did.
A year later found me in Augusta, a tiny town in the middle of the cotton fields of east Arkansas. I thought it a bleak and lonely place. Before it turned cold, the mosquitoes would be so thick around the streetlights at night that they looked like smoke. And then winter came, and the fields were dull and dreary and dead and endless.
I was the ninth-grade English teacher at Augusta High School. In three weeks, Guillermina and I were going to be married, in Tecate, in a Catholic church, and then I would be bringing her back to Augusta. And then I was summoned, via an ominous intercom message, to the principal’s office.
As in some noir movie or novel, I walked through the door of the office and found trouble, in the personage of a very pretty girl sitting demurely across the desk from my principal Mr. Matlock. Mr. Matlock explained to me that the pretty girl was a senior in college and was being assigned to my class as a practice teacher.
I became immediately smitten with the girl, and my smittenness was reciprocated. Guillermina and her family didn’t have a phone, so I wrote her a letter (partially in Spanish--each of us had been studying the other’s language) telling her that I’d realized I was too young and immature to be married (which was quite true) and that I wouldn’t be coming to Tecate for the wedding. In a few days, I received a collect phone call from Guillermina. Rosa was on the line too, to act as our translator. Guillermina wasn’t sure she understood what the letter meant. I started with the too young and immature thing again, but Guillermina wasn’t buying it. Finally I admitted that I’d met somebody else. By this time, I was crying, and Rosa as she translated for us was also crying, but Guillermina didn’t cry. She said a simple but devastating sentence to me in her newly acquired English: “I have a dress white.” Guillermina and Rosa were so beautiful and so sweet and deserved so much more than they got from Billy and me. I often wonder whatever became of them.
From a cosmic justice standpoint, things worked out. Two months after our romance began, my practice teacher, who had returned to classes at her college, disappeared. After several frantic days, I tracked her down. She informed me that she felt we had entered into a relationship too hastily and that it was over between us. Then I got another one of those ominous calls to the principal’s office and was told by Mr. Matlock (six foot nine, the former basketball coach) that the school board had decided not to renew my contract ( I never really fit in in Augusta), and then a few weeks later I found out they’d hired my practice teacher to replace me!
I moved to Little Rock. Rented the bottom half of a dumpy duplex in a bad neighborhood near downtown, just up the hill from a liquor store (the down and up walk between duplex and liquor store would be made with increasing frequency over the next two years). I began piecing together a living. I wrote some articles for a couple of local magazines, taught freshman English parttime at a couple of colleges, had a six-month stint as the editor of a weekly newspaper called The Voice, where I made history (when I quit to take another job, the publisher told me: “You’ve been the worst editor in the paper’s history”).
Meanwhile, I was writing. From when I’d begun during my freshman year, I’d written two novels, dozens of short stories, and hundreds of poems. But with the exception of five or six poems and a single short story, none of it had been published. I’d diligently been sending my stuff out, but had been met with a blizzard of rejection slips. I was nearing 30, and was barely making enough money to keep a roof over my head. And here I was stuck back in Arkansas when I had wanted to venture forth and explore the world. So I conceived a new plan.
I would move to Los Angeles and become a Hollywood writer. Going back to Attack of the Crab Monsters, I’d always loved movies, and was confident I could write them. But it felt too daunting to tackle this task by myself. I wanted a partner.
Billy was living back in Malvern. When he’d returned from California, he’d settled down a bit. He’d met a girl and gotten married and had a baby. One of his mother’s friends was the secretary of Arkansas’ dynamic first-term governor, hardly older than me, Bill Clinton. Strings were pulled and Billy got hired on at the highway department.
We’d parted on such bad terms in Lakeside I didn’t think we’d ever speak to each other again. I would go back to Malvern pretty often to see my mother (my father had died years before, a victim of obesity, cigarettes, and alcohol). My mother and Billy’s mother were best friends. I’d run into Billy sometimes. We began to hang out again. After a while we were back to being best buddies.
He was still playing in a band, a ZZ Tops-like group called Tres Hombres. But in terms of getting a career going, he’d been about as successful musically as I’d been literaturely. Billy had a lot of charisma as a stage performer, and he’d done some acting in high school. His marriage broke up, which meant he was free to travel again, so I tried to convince him to come out to California with me and become an actor (I don't remember this, but Billy has told me that as part of my persuasion campaign I kept telling him he looked just like John Travolta).
Except for songs, Billy hadn’t done any writing, but he had a great way with words. He was always having bizarre adventures and telling hilarious stories about them, where he’d provide the voices for all the different characters. He too was a movie lover, so we decided to write scripts together. I went to the library and checked out a how-to book on screenwriting, along with the screenplay for The Exorcist. In the spring of 1981 we wrote a script called Run for the Hills, about a star high-school quarterback who gets in trouble with the law and has to go on the run (it was a very bad script with patches of very good writing, and later proved useful as a writing sample). Then we started making plans to return to the west coast.
I was teaching freshman English at UALR, so we had to wait for the semester to end. We used to climb to the roof of Billy’s house with a six pack of beer, and we’d watch white clouds drift across the blue sky, and drink, and dream about all the wonderful things waiting for us in California. We were absolutely positive that we were going to be big successes, that we were going to tear Hollywood apart. We were pretty sure it would all happen by Christmas.
The semester ended. Billy quit his job at the highway department. After the usual tearful good-byes with our mothers, we left Malvern on a rainy Friday morning in early June. We had a tape player, and we put in a Beach Boys cassette, so that “California Girls” was playing as we pulled out of town, with the windshield wipers sloshing back and forth.
I had traded in my black Buick for a sky-blue Mustang. We stopped off at a gas station and bought a road map. We had $500 between us. When we reached L.A. after three days of traveling, we had $400.
Los Angeles was gigantic. We didn’t know a soul. Used to Arkansas prices, we’d thought we had plenty of money to get us into an apartment. That assumption proved incorrect. We’d arrived in the middle of a scorching heat wave. Indeed, that June turned out to be the hottest in L.A.’s history. We drove around in my unairconditioned car sweating through our clothes and searching for an apartment and for jobs that didn’t seem to exist. We moved from cheap motel to cheaper motel and became increasingly desperate as we watched our money running out. Ten days after we’d got there, we were down to $20. Not enough for another night at the motel in Westchester near the airport we were staying at. We packed up our car and left.
We drove to the ocean. We went out on the Santa Monica Pier, sat down on a bench, and tried to figure out what to do. We didn’t have the money to get back home. We could call up our mothers (collect) and have them send us some money, but that thought was horrible. It would be New York all over again. Leaving with much fanfare to seek our fortunes in the big city, then sneaking back into town only a couple of weeks after we’d left. We sat there for hours. The sun began to go down in Santa Monica Bay…
Obviously, we found a way to stay in Los Angeles. I could write a book about what happened to us over the next decade, but a few sentences will have to suffice for now. In visual terms, I see that period as a dark, turbulent cloud, with occasional flashes of beautiful golden light. It was a time of frustration, conflict, physical hunger, booze and parties, broken hearts and broken-down cars, life-threatening illnesses, deaths in the family, hopes raised and dashed… It took us four years to get an agent, six years to sell a script, 10 years to get a movie made. And then in 1992, we caught a huge break.
Billy and I had written a script in 1987 called Color Me Bad, later retitled One False Move. RCA Columbia, a video company, put up the money to make it, and the film was completed in 1991. It starred Bill Paxton as a naïve small-town Arkansas chief of police who has a deadly showdown with some hardboiled criminals from L.A. Billy played one of the bad guys. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a distributor for it. It sat on the shelf for a year, and seemed to be headed straight-to-video. It was a rotten time. Billy and I hadn’t had a writing job in a long while, and I was totally broke. My car was in hock to the Writers Guild Credit Union, and I was having to borrow money from a girl I’d recently met to pay the rent. And then the luck happened.
Movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel saw One False Move at separate film festivals in early 1992. Both went bananas over it, and made it their personal campaign to see that the movie was released in theaters. It came out in May to rave reviews. Billy and I suddenly became a hot writing team, and Billy’s acting career began to flourish. In their end-of-the-year show, Ebert named One False Move the second best movie of the year while Siskel had it number one. Billy and I owe a big debt to the thumbs up/thumbs down guys, God rest their souls.
Five other Tom and Billy projects have been made since then, though I’m going to talk about only three of them (the other two movies got screwed up by the filmmakers; the scripts were good, trust me). A Family Thing, starring Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones as an unlikely pair of brothers, came out in 1996. The Gift, starring Cate Blanchett as a small-town southern psychic (based on Billy’s mom), was made in 2000, with Keanu Reeves and Greg Kinnear co-starring and Sam Raimi directing. And then in 2012 came Jayne Mansfield’s Car, set in a small town in Alabama in 1969. Billy directed, and also starred with Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, and John Hurt.
Along with A Family Thing, I had another movie come out in ’96. A Gun, a Car, A Blonde was co-written by me and the girl who’d loaned me rent money, Stefani Ames. Stefani directed and I produced. Jim Metzler starred as a bitter cancer victim who escapes from his suffering into an imaginary black-and-white film-noir world, where he achieves spiritual redemption. Billy and the late (and wonderful, both as an actor and a human being) John Ritter co-starred.
Also in ’96, I returned to my bookish roots, and began writing a novel. I worked on it between screenwriting gigs for the next six years. When my agent sent it out to publishers, it was met with a blizzard of rejection e-mails. I spent a couple of years writing another novel which was received more warmly. The Kind One takes place in Los Angeles in 1934. Its central character is a young man named Danny Landon, who works for a gangster named Bud Seitz, called “the Kind One” because he’s not. It was published in 2008. (I’m glad when I was 18 I didn’t know it would take me 38 years to get a book published. I think I would’ve found that a bit discouraging.)
My favorite movie is Shane, and I wrote a book inspired by it that came out in 2012. Sailor is the story of a young woman and her son who are fleeing across America with six brutal killers in pursuit. In a sleepy Southern California beach town, they meet a mild-mannered young man named Gray. Gray is on the run too, from his past, and…well, you get the picture.
Though it’s hard for me to believe, I’ve now spent over half my life in Los Angeles. I’m living in a pleasant neighborhood of Leave-It-To-Beaver-type houses with Stefani, the-girl-who-loaned-me-rent-money-who-is-now-my-wife. I continue to work in the worlds of both books and Hollywood. I am glad now I didn’t have more success as a young writer, because otherwise it never would have occurred to me to try to write for the movies and come out to California and I wouldn’t have the friends, the cats, the dog, the wife, the life that I have now. I am shocked, angered, and appalled by what I see going on every day in the world around me, and I pledge to do what I can to awaken others to the fact that greed, willful ignorance, war, and environmental collapse are making the continued existence of life on this planet an uncertain thing. So that’s it for now for The Tom Epperson Story. “To be continued,” as they say, hopefully (if I and the planet hold up) for a long time to come.
January 12, 2015
Photo by Carlos Gaviria